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Tarantino gets everything right in Jackie Brown

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Cool Pam Grier heats up Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown.

Elmore Leonard movies—Jackie Brown

In 2013, I embarked on a mission to watch movies based on novels by Elmore Leonard. The crime writer passed away Aug. 20 2013 at the age of 88. As part of the project, I watched/reviewed 52 Pick-Up (1986), Get Shorty (1995) and Killshot (2008). I also looked at Jackie Brown (1997). But I’ve added a few thoughts, and essentially rewritten the original post. 

Jackie Brown is probably the best-known of Elmore Leonard movie adaptations.

All eyes were on Quentin Tarantino following the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I would imagine the director surprised a lot of people with this next movie. Instead of filming another original screenplay, he adapted Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch.

In some ways, this should not have been too big of a shock. The tone and twists of Tarantino’s work (which included the screenplay for True Romance) owe a lot to Leonard’s work. One example is an early scene in Pulp Fiction. In it, two professional enforcers (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) drop in on a hotel room full of young amateurs who have ripped off the enforcers’ boss.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown starring Bridget Fonda
Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown.

This mirrors a similar scene in Leonard’s 1980 novel Gold Coast. In Gold Coast, it’s only one enforcer, and he’s gone rogue. But the tension between a visit from a professional hit man to a bunch of amateurs (professionals vs. amateurs is a familiar trope in Leonard’s work), the setting, and the tone are the same.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown has a terrific cast. Robert De Niro exudes Leonard-esque menace as a former con with pent-up anger. Bridget Fonda is delightful as an unambitious and too-chatty-for-her-own-good surfer girl.

Best of all are Robert Forster and Pam Grier. The seasoned pros bring a dignity and grace to the proceedings. It’s not often we see a middle-age romance played out so deftly on the screen.

At two-and-a-half hours, Jackie Brown movie is indulgent. Colourful but inconsequential dialogue fills long scenes. (Leonard’s dialogue almost always serves a purpose.) But Tarantino gets Leonard in a way few other directors do. He neatly captures the dry humour and underlying menace of Leonard’s prose.

Jackie Brown stands up today as one of the best and most entertaining Leonard adaptations. It may even be Tarantino’s best movie. It’s certainly the one with the most heart.

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